“Today You Will Be with Me in Paradise”

(Luke 23:39-34 – Midweek Lent 2 – March 9, 2022)

Luke 23:39-43 – Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

Today we consider Jesus’ second word from the cross. It was a word of pardon spoken to a dying sinner, assuring him of sins forgiven; it was a word of promise, assuring him of salvation and eternal life: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

These words were not spoken a religious man, the kind the world would consider a saint. They were not spoken to a fine upstanding citizen, who had contributed much to society. They were not even spoken to one who had been a faithful disciple of Jesus. Rather, they were spoken to a convicted man, guilty of a capital crime. He and his fellow convict had been hung on crosses, one to either side of Jesus. We don’t know the exact nature of their crime. Here they are called “criminals.” The parallel accounts also call them “robbers” – the kind who take things by force and violence. With the kind of punishment they were getting, these were no common robbers, but those who presented a threat to Roman security. We may think of violent rebels, or even terrorists. Their public crucifixion was intended to discourage like-minded offenders. Here, as Jesus hangs on His cross between them, we see the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12 fulfilled: “He was numbered with the transgressors.”

At first, the accounts tell us that both of these criminals joined the crowds in mocking and blaspheming Jesus (Matthew 27:44; Mark 15:32). But then, one of them grew silent. By the grace of God, he was given a change of heart, a heart of repentance and faith.

How it happened, we are not told. But as the agonizing hours on the cross passed by, the Holy Spirit had worked a change of heart in this man. As he felt death coming so painfully for his crimes against mankind, he realized that this was only a foretaste of the judgment and everlasting death he deserved for his sins against God. Now he confessed his sin openly, even rebuking the other criminal who blasphemed Jesus, saying: “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.”

Not only was he sorry for his own sin; he also believed that Jesus was there to save him. Maybe in childhood, he had been taught some of those prophecies from Scripture about Christ, the heaven-sent Messiah-King who would come to save His people. Maybe at some point in the past few years, even in the midst of his wayward path of sin, he had heard Jesus preach about His Kingdom, forgiveness, and eternal life. Maybe then, he had blown it off as just a bunch of rubbish. But this day, he witnessed something convincing in Jesus. He saw the extraordinary humility and patience of Jesus on the way to the place of crucifixion. He saw how Jesus bore the mockery of His enemies, as they reviled and rejected Him as being any kind of Messiah or Savior. And yet even then, He heard Jesus praying to His Father in heaven for their forgiveness. Faith comes from hearing the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17). And that intercessory prayer in behalf of unworthy sinners became the Gospel that softened his hardened heart and created new life where there had only been death.

Now by the grace of God, the hardened sinner was changed by Holy Spirit given faith, which he now openly confessed. Before all the enemies of Christ, who mocked Him as any kind of King, the repentant criminal shamelessly cried out to His Savior and King: “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” In other words: “Jesus save me, an unworthy sinner, from the death I deserve. You alone are my hope of salvation and eternal life!”

Now some may have mocked this man right alongside Jesus, and blown off his words as pure rubbish. The Roman soldiers had heard many criminals’ desperate confessions, inspired by the pains of crucifixion. Those in the crowd couldn’t have cared less about what he said, no matter how sincere he was. This guilty criminal was getting what he deserved, and good riddance! It would be easy to picture people’s heads shaking, as they turned away in disgust.

But Jesus did not. The Lord who works repentance and faith in the heart knows those who are His own (2 Timothy 2:19). No matter what great crimes this man had committed against society, no matter how horribly he had sinned against God, Jesus would not turn away from him. For the Son of God had come into the world for this very purpose, as the apostle Paul said: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15). As the Son of Man, Jesus had come to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). This is why He was suffering and dying on His cross, to save condemned and dying sinners – the worst of sinners.

This includes you and me. We do not deserve what Jesus came do for us, any more than the hardened criminal on death row. This may be difficult for us to hear, but it is true.  Maybe we are tempted to think that we are not as bad of sinners, because at least we have done our part as upstanding citizens, contributing something good to society. At least we have been better parents, raising our children the right way. At least we have been good churchgoers, contributing to the Lord’s work. In one way or another, we would like to point to what we have done to make us more deserving of God’s favor – especially more than such a guilty and condemned criminal.

Jesus once spoke of a Pharisee who stood in God’s temple and prayed in that same vein: “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). Like that Pharisee, often pride and self-righteousness are our biggest sins. They blind us to the horrible nature and guilt of our own sin.

The fact is, we all have lived as criminals against God’s holy Law. That is what it means to be a transgressor. We all have broken His commandments and deserve to die. Through anger and hatred, we have become murderers in our hearts, the way God sees it. Through lusts and forbidden pleasures, we have become adulterers in our hearts. Through greed and laziness in our work, we have gotten dishonest gain and become thieves. Our list of crimes against God’s holy Law goes on. We must see ourselves in that criminal on the cross – just as guilty and deserving of condemnation before God. Otherwise what would we have to do with such a Savior as Jesus – who was “numbered with the transgressors”?

The more we realize and confess this, the more we can rejoice at the word of pardon and promise Jesus spoke from His cross: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

Imagine how wonderful those words were to the condemned sinner! He asked only to be remembered, but Jesus promised him eternal life! Jesus promised him heaven’s complete relief “today” – not tomorrow, not after thousands of years of suffering punishments in the flames of an imaginary place called purgatory. Today, the criminal would be free of his painful cross and death. But even more importantly, Jesus was setting him free from all his sin and guilt. Jesus was setting him free from the everlasting fires of God’s judgment! Instead he would soon be in Paradise – that perfect place where there is no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor pain. He would live forever in the glorious presence of his Savior, in that wonderful place where the Lord is making all things new (Revelation 21:4-5).

Today, Jesus gives you and me the same word of pardon and promise. As we confess our sins, looking to His cross, crying out to Him who alone is our hope of salvation, He hears us. As Jesus looks at us today and says: I forgive you all your sins, be they ever so horrible. By virtue of My cross and suffering for you, My holy and precious blood shed for you, My innocent death in your place, you are perfectly pardoned.” Today by His word of pardon, Jesus sets us free from all sin and guilt, and from all punishment.

And today, by His word of promise, He opens to us the gates of His heavenly paradise. Though our bodies one day die and are laid in the grave, yet we have His reassuring promise: “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1-3).

“Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” This was Jesus’ word of pardon and promise to the penitent criminal. But was it too good to be true? After all, just a few hours later Jesus would die on His cross. How could He keep His promise? Easter is the proof. “For He is risen, as He said” (Matthew 28:6). And Jesus says to us today: “Because I live, you will live also” (John 14:19). That criminal who died next to Jesus enjoys Paradise even now. And one day, you and I will also. We have our Savior’s word of pardon and promise. Amen.